Andrew Sullivan is a Never Trumper. He despises Trump and before that, he had begun criticizing the downward spiral he saw the conservative movement entering that led to Trump. But despite this, Andrew Sullivan is, first and foremost, a white conservative male and so he often finds himself unable to see past his own ideological limitations. After launching into a rambling screed about how Christianity can save us all if only we embraced it in our politics once again, Vox's Ezra Klein methodically demolishes Sullivan:
Sullivan claims that the modern West has lost Christian practice and gained, in its place, a monstrous political tribalism. It’s a looping, strange argument in which he stitches together eloquent reflections on the hollowness of human existence, musings about electronic distraction, and concerns that an ethos of materialist progress has replaced an appreciation of metaphysical awe, all to end in a slashing justification of his own political resentments.
To be clear, I have no interest in litigating anyone’s faith. What I am interested in is American politics, and in this essay, Sullivan offers a nostalgic analysis of our current problems that has become popular among a certain class of pundits — David Brooks calls Sullivan’s essay a shoe-in for his annual Sidney Awards — but that doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny, and in fact displays the very biases it laments.
The fact that David Brooks wet himself over Sullivan's piece tells you exactly what kind of essay it was: Both sides are to blame. Sullivan equates Trump's cult with the social justice movement of the left. And while it is true that the social justice warriors can sometimes go overboard, what Sullivan and those like him always, always, fail to discuss is whether the core principle behind the movement is sound. Do women have a point when they demand they be treated equally? Does the LGBT community have a point when they demand an end to mean jokes at their expense? Do black people have a point when they demand statues of Confederate soldiers be taken down? Well, yes, of course they do. The people who wring their hands and fret the loudest about the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction tend to be the people who feel they are being "oppressed" by all these demands to end oppression, i.e. white conservative men. It's a little hard to feel bad for them and their minor inconvenience of not being able to call women "sluts" or gay people "fags."
On the other hand, Sullivan's "equal" side, the MAGAs, have, according to Sullivan, "embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ. They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made." The nationalism referred to here is white nationalism, even if Sulivan seems reluctant to say it. And white nationalism on this scale can only lead to violence because, as I've explained more than once, in a nation with over 100 million of Those People, there is no way to make America white without mass murder.
Even if we take Sullivan's railing against the evils of social justice at face value (which we really shouldn't), it's laughable to compare political correctness to the rapidly growing violence of the right wing. No one from the LGBT community enters a synagogue and shoots 11 Jews because they misgendered a high school student. A mob of women doesn't beat men to a pulp because they catcall them. Black people don't openly march with tiki torches celebrating genocidal fascists. Only one side of the political spectrum engages in these behaviors. Suggesting otherwise is insulting and deeply disingenuous.
But that's kind of the point of Sullivan's entire column. As Klein points out, Sullivan is engaged in that most prized of all conservative skills: Ignoring all of American history. Sullivan makes the argument that Christianity used to keep things civil and calm in politics; that politics was "procedural" instead of a bloodsport and all these social justice types are making things just awful. I am far from a professional student of history and even I know that is jaw-droppingly ignorant. Klein agrees:
This is a relentlessly ahistorical read of American politics. America’s political past was not more procedural and restrained than its present, and religion does not, in general, calm political divides. What Sullivan is missing in these sections is precisely the perspective of the groups he’s dismissing.
The simplest objection to Sullivan’s narrative is that American politics has never been merely procedural — and, indeed, the more procedural it has felt, the more fundamental its internal conflicts have often been.
The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it well in our podcast conversation. “A lot of what people nostalgically consider eras without tribalism are in fact moments in American history where people of color, particularly black people, have been deprived of political power, and so things like ethnic and racial lines became less salient.”
In other words, what Sullivan is longing for, whether he realizes it or not, is a time when all of Those People, blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women, the poor, the LGBT community, the disabled, etc. were silent. When only rich white Christian men had all the power, things were much more congenial and everyone was happy. "Everyone" in this case meaning "rich white Christian men" or what we commonly refer to as "Republicans" these days. You can see the appeal for Sullivan and Brooks. Not so much for anyone outside of their cozy little club.
Klein points out the rather large, OK, enormous, holes in Sullivan's argument:
Presumably, Sullivan isn’t thinking of the runup to the Civil War, either. He can’t possibly be describing the Civil War itself as a period of procedural politics calmed by Christian practice. There’s no way it could’ve been the bloody aftermath of the Civil War, when Southern whites reestablished control of their territory through a campaign of state violence and political repression.
That brings us to the 20th century, when partisanship did indeed ebb as the Dixiecrats’ commitment to white supremacy scrambled the parties ideologically. But this was hardly a calm era in American politics. For much of the 20th century, the right to vote was, for African Americans, no right at all. Lynchings were common. Freedom Riders were murdered across the American South. Suffragists were beaten and tortured for seeking the franchise. National Guard members fired on, and killed, student protesters at Kent State. Police had to escort young African-American children into schools as jeering crowds shouted racial epithets and threatened to attack.
But let's be honest here, Sullivan is not thinking about how horrible these time periods were for black people, he's thinking only of how lovely they were for white politicians and white voters. Sure, the 60s were filled with radicals but the decades before that were awesome! For white people. Why can't we go back to that better time and let a little (white) Jesus back into our lives?
Sullivan is Exhibit A when it comes to white privilege, a phrase he finds almost as repulsive as Trump. He can only see the world through his own extremely limited lens. He is incapable of extending his worldview to encompass, or even acknowledge, the lived experience of people that grew up in a system that demonize them for having brown skin or a uterus or the "wrong" religion. He's literally part of the reason social justice warriors have to push so hard because the current power structure insists that there's nothing wrong and the status quo is just fine. But it's not and the fact that Trump has a cult of millions of people demanding violence against brown skin is proof of that.
White Christian men have been running this country since its founding and their legacy is one of genocide, misogyny, racism, and greed. Now that the rest of our incredibly diverse nation is taking their rightful seat at the table, white (conservative) Christian men are trying to burn America to ashes and salt the ground before giving up their power. Maybe it's time for Sullivan to take off his (white) rose-tinted glasses.